Considering our nation’s merciless criminal justice policies, it comes as no surprise that the United States has the largest prison population and highest incarceration rate in the world.
What you may not know, however, is that women are a fast growing demographic of the prison population. There are currently 219,000 women — mostly mothers — behind bars in our nation’s overlapping criminal justice systems, according to a new report released last week by the Prison Policy Initiative and the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice. To put that in perspective: Only five percent of the world’s female population lives in the U.S., yet nearly one-third of all the female prisoners in the entire world are here in the United States.
Nationwide, the criminal justice system is failing communities, hurting the economy, and destroying families — and putting women and mothers disproportionately behind bars for drug and property crimes. We’ve narrowed down some of the most horrific impacts the United States’ culture of incarceration has on women and mothers:
- Many states still shackle women during labor and delivery. You read that right. Some women are shackled while being transferred to the hospital and even in their beds while giving birth, making labor and childbirth all the more challenging. Even in states where anti-shackling laws have been put in place, this inhumane practice continues to occur all too often.
- Women are separated from their children. Eighty percent of women in jails are mothers. Most of them are primary caretakers of their children. Excessive incarceration hurts innocent children the most, causing them to experience severe feelings of isolation and trauma. And, since the criminal justice system disproportionately locks up people of color, children of color also disproportionately suffer. As a society, we should know better than this. Period.
- Economic impact. This country’s pay gap problem — the yawning gap between the wages of Black women and white men — can have especially onerous implications in the criminal justice system. Economically disadvantaged Black women have fewer resources to make bail, causing them to wind up behind bars for far too long, even for crimes they’ve only been charged with and often are not found guilty of.
Sixty percent of women in jail, according to the ACLU’s Smart Justice Campaign and the Prison Policy Initiative, have not been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial. That means that poor people are automatically criminalized more often and for longer periods of time. This extra time in jail can lead to a seemingly never ending downward financial spiral. Defendants can lose their jobs, along with access to benefits and even their housing. In short, incarcerating a woman who is poor will only make her poorer.
- Too many women in prison are there for drug offenses. Twenty-five percent of the women in state prisons are serving nonviolent convictions related to drugs. Strict penalties designed to combat the distribution of illegal drugs have done little to stem the drug trade. Instead, these overly harsh penalties have swept up people experiencing challenges related to drug addiction into an ever-expanding criminal justice system. These folks need treatment and counseling, not jail time.
We must divest from mass incarceration and invest in our families and children instead.
This article is part of a series featuring women’s perspectives on incarceration. Read a report on the drivers of women’s incarceration.